The cold war was one of the strangest times in world history. It wasn’t a war…exactly, but a period of geopolitical tension between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies, the Western Bloc, and the Eastern Bloc, which began following World War II. While the war did not really “act” like a war, at least 389 soldiers were killed in the line of duty, as estimated by the American Cold War Veterans. These casualties were the result of planes being shot down by the Communist forces of the Soviet Union. One such plane was an American Navy P2V-3W was shot down near Vladivostok over the Sea of Japan by Soviet forces in November of 1951. The P2V-3W exploded off the coast, and the crew of 10 American soldiers was reported as missing. The Soviets accused the crew of gathering intelligence, and the Americans claimed that the mission was related to weather reconnaissance. The truth may never be really known. There were many other hazards that Americans were exposed to during the conflict. An estimated 400,000 people were subject to harm from toxins, which killed more than half of those who were exposed to them. Several thousand soldiers also lost their lives during these years in training accidents and friendly-fire incidents. So, while there were never any “battles” there were losses.
Because of the Nazi loss in World War II, and the surrender in 1945, the nation’s capital, Berlin, was divided into four sections, with the Americans, British, and French controlling the western region, and the Soviets controlling the eastern region. The three western sections came together as the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). East Germany became the German Democratic Republic in October of that same year. With tensions mounting, the border between the two new countries was closed in 1952, and by the following year East Germans were prosecuted if they left their country without permission. The situation grew worse when in August 1961, the Berlin Wall was erected by the East German government to prevent its citizens from escaping to the West. People were trying to escape every day, and between 1949 and night the wall went up, an estimated 2.5 million East Germans fled to the West.
By the time President Ronald Reagan was in office, the Cold War had started to really get old. Something had to change, and Reagan was determined to do something to stop the feuding. Like all presidents, part of keeping the people informed on matters of importance is making speeches, and on June 12, 1987, President Reagan made one of his most famous Cold War speeches, when he issued a challenge to Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down” the Berlin Wall. With the Berlin Wall behind him, Reagan said, “There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace.” He then called upon his Soviet counterpart: “Secretary General Gorbachev, if you seek peace—if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe—if you seek liberalization: come here, to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The speech was also intended to ask Gorbachev to undertake serious arms reduction talks with the United States.
Many people thought that Reagan’s speech as a dramatic appeal to Gorbachev to renew negotiations on nuclear arms reductions, but it was also a reminder that despite Gorbachev’s public statements about a new relationship with the West, the United States also wanted to see action taken to lessen Cold War tensions. The people of East Berlin just wanted freedom, and two years later, on November 9, 1989, East and West Germans got their way when the people broke down the infamous wall between East and West Berlin. Germany was officially reunited on October 3, 1990.
Imagine a world in which you could go to sleep living in freedom, and wake up behind prison walls…and you didn’t leave your home. That is exactly what happened to the people who lived in East Berlin. The Berlin Wall was erected overnight on August 13, 1961. The people of East Berlin were prisoners in their own city. Many of them had friends and family members who lived in West Berlin, but they were no longer allowed to go and see them, nor could the West Berliners come to East Berlin to see the inhabitants of that part of the city. The people in East Berlin were in a panic, and yet nothing could be done to free themselves from their plight. At least, not until they began to get very creative.
Many attempts were made in an effort to escape their captors, and many of those failed, but it would be the successful attempts at escape that would stay in our minds all these years. It was the successful attempts that were written about and celebrated in history, because those people won against a tyrannical government. One such escape was captured in pictures. Early in the construction, before most people even knew what was going on, Willy Finder figured it out and took steps to get his family out. His was a daring plan,but the people of West Berlin were willing to help pull it off. Willy’s wife was the first to go. I con only imagine how she must have felt. The plan required her to jump from the window ledge of their 4th story apartment, into a net held by residents and firemen in West Berlin. These apartments were along Bernauer Straße (street) in Berlin. The building actually saddled the border between East and West Berlin. After the wall was first constructed in 1961, many residents escaped through these apartment blocks, in this manner. So many, in fact, that the Soviets finally bricked up the windows and raided the apartments, evicting the people who lived there. After his mother jumped, four year old Michael Finder was tossed by his father to the waiting net below. There was no time to explain all this to his son…no time to reassure him. His daddy simply had to toss in out the window. Then Willy Finder made the jump himself. Theirs was a successful escape, one of many, and this infuriated the Soviet Union, because this was a part of the Soviet occupation zone formed after the reconstruction that followed World War II.
The Soviet occupation zone in Germany, and in Berlin, was suffering from numerous movements of educated individuals from their sectors toward the West throughout the 1950s. This movement, thought to be a brain drain, encouraged the Soviet Union to begin construction of a “Fascist Protection Wall” that was supposed to keep East Germans protected from “Fascism” that the Western Allies had “not eradicated in their sectors.” Of course, the reality was that the wall, later called the Berlin Wall, was designed to keep East Germans from emigrating to the West. The apartments where the Finders lived were later torn down and the Berlin Wall that most of us picture in the news reels, and have chunks of in our museums all over the world, was erected. Nevertheless, between 1945 and 1988, around 4 million East Germans migrated to the West. The majority…as many as 3½ million people left between 1945 and the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Of those, most simply walked across the border. After 1952, they exited through West Berlin. After the border was fortified and the Berlin Wall was constructed, the number of illegal border crossings fell drastically. The numbers fell further as border defenses were improved over the following decades. In 1961, 8,507 people fled across the border, most of them through West Berlin. The construction of the Berlin Wall that year reduced the number of escapees by 75% to around 2,300 per year for the rest of the decade. The Wall changed Berlin from being one of the easiest places to cross the border, from the East, to being one of the most difficult. The wall was finally torn down on June 13, 1990, and the German people were again free to move around the country.